A group of budding engineers from the University of Wollongong and TAFE Illawarra have taken first place honours at the inaugural Solar Decathlon in China.

The team’s Illawarra Flame House took first place in the competition which was held in the Shanxi province city of Datong, and enjoyed the participation of a total of 19 teams from around the world.

The Illawarra Flame House is a suburban fibro home dating from the 1960’s , which Team UOW converted via extensive retrofits into a net-zero building which boasts some of the best practices in contemporary green engineering.

In addition to grabbing top prize, Team UOW was the first Australian team to qualify for participation in a solar decathlon, while the Illawarra Flame House is also the first retrofitted home to feature as an entry in the storied green engineering competition.

The project beat the rest of the international competition by scoring a stunning 957.7 points out of a possible 1,000, and ranking first in the categories of Architecture, Engineering and Solar Application sections.

The home was designed and built by a group of over 50 students and faculty members over a two year period, and derived its inspiration from the Illawarra Flame Tree, a plant native to Australia’s eastern seaboard which is renowned for its ability to regenerate during the spring.

A fibro home was chosen for retrofitting due to its status as an icon of Australian domestic architecture, as well as the near-ubiquity of such dwellings in the nation’s suburbs.

Energy efficiency measures installed in the home include a 9.4 kW photovoltaic system, extensive LED lighting, thermal mass walls comprised of 90 per cent recycled materials, double-glazed windows, an energy management system, and a thermal PV HVAC system that employs phase change materials (PCM’s).

In addition to a raft of energy efficiency features the home comes equipped with water conservation measures, including a reed-bed based grey water treatment system and rainwater harvesting.

The home also provides occupants with a high degree of self-sufficiency, with a composting and aquaponics system which can “significantly reduce household waste, provide fertility to the landscape and grow a variety of vegetable species and edible fish with minimal input or maintenance.”

The project’s participation in Solar Decathlon China meant that the house had to be fully dismantled for shipping to Datong, where it was rebuilt within a mere 12 day time frame.

After winning top honours at the competition, the home will again be disassembled and shipped back to Australia, where it will be rebuilt at the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong’s Innovation Campus.

Paul Cooper, faculty adviser for Team UOW, said that the building will hopefully serve to exemplify the tremendous potential of green retrofits for contemporary Australia homes.

“It will be opened regularly to the public, and become a part of the SBRC Living Laboratory program,” Cooper says.

“Importantly, it will provide not only a test bed for new sustainable building technologies, but a vehicle to accelerate the adoption of sustainable retrofit technologies for homes in Australia and overseas.”